Ottawa

Canadians in U.S. fret over visas, jobs as NAFTA chatter intensifies

Some Canadians who've been living the California dream in Silicon Valley thanks to a special work visa available under the North American Free Trade Agreement say they're fearful that any changes to the treaty under a new U.S. administration could put their jobs in peril.

But Canadian companies seeking talent could potentially benefit from visa changes

Jennifer Wu and David Chen are Canadians working in the U.S. on TN (Treaty NAFTA) visas. (Submitted)

Some Canadians who've been living the California dream in Silicon Valley thanks to a special work visa available under the North American Free Trade Agreement say they're fearful that any changes to the treaty under a new U.S. administration could put their jobs in peril.

With a TN (Treaty NAFTA) visa in hand, thousands of Canadians move freely across the 49th parallel once they've received a job offer from a U.S. agency or company.
University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University grads David Chen and Jennifer Wu are working in the San Francisco Bay area on TN (Treaty NAFTA) visas. (Submitted)

Canadians Jennifer Wu, a school social worker in El Cerrito, Calif., and her partner David Chen, who works for Yelp in San Francisco, said they eventually want to return to Canada, but have been enjoying the unique work experience northern California has to offer.

But if president-elect Donald Trump makes good on his promise to "rip up" NAFTA, an agreement he's repeatedly characterized as "a disaster," they're wondering what will happen to their visas — and their jobs.

"It's something we talk about because we have a lot, a lot of Canadian friends on the TN visas as well. So we're all kind of unsure of what's going to happen," said Wu from her home in San Francisco. "Some of our friends have expressed they're a bit worried about what this means to the tech sector here.

"Part of what makes Silicon Valley so attractive is because of the diverse workers they're able to get with the TN visas," said Wu. "I think losing that would really hurt Silicon Valley."

Trade Trump's 1st priority

On Wednesday CNN reported on a leaked memo suggesting the new administration will immediately focus on trade and NAFTA in particular.

"We lose with Canada, big league. Tremendous, tremendous trade deficits with Canada," said Trump during a campaign stop last spring.

"[I will] tell our NAFTA partners that I intend to immediately renegotiate the terms of that agreement to get a better deal for our workers," he promised later.

Those who monitor Canadian trade policy and agreements are waiting to see exactly what that means for this country.

Trump could take axe to NAFTA

"He could take an axe and kill all the provisions of NAFTA, including the TN visa component," said Dane Rowlands, director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. "This all could be gone, but this is not clear. He's backtracked a little bit already."
Dane Rowlands is director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. (Submitted by Dane Rowlands)

Rowlands said while Trump has indicated he wants to get more U.S. citizens working, unemployed Americans may not necessarily have the skills U.S. firms are looking for.

Debra Steger, the Hyman Soloway Chair in Business and Trade Law at the University of Ottawa, said she's surprised businesses in the U.S. haven't been more vocal in their support of NAFTA policies that benefit them, such as TN visas.

"There may be a response from business, once [Trump] lays out what his trade policy plans really are," said Steger.

She has advice for the many Canadian engineering and computer science graduates who are currently getting job offers from companies including Microsoft and Google right now.

"Get the TN visa soon and get it for the full three years if it's possible," Steger advised.

Opportunities for Canadian companies

Siva Ananmalay, a Canadian who originally moved to Silicon Valley on a visa to work for Nortel, believes emerging tech companies desperate for talent might start looking to set up shop in Canada, where they could have better access to highly skilled workers from around the world.

Siva Ananmalay is a Canadian working in Silicon Valley. (Submitted)
"It's much more difficult for people from other countries to work in the tech sector here than it is for Canadians," said Ananmalay from his home in California. "If that changes, I think there's going to be a lot of Canadians, particularly young ones coming out of school, who will take the easier path and just work in a Canadian company."

Ross Mistry, an Canadian who works as a senior director at Microsoft in San Francisco, agreed it's a difficult and lengthy process for skilled worker outside the NAFTA zone — particularly those from India and China — to secure jobs in North America.

Mistry agrees that Canada could potentially profit from changes to NAFTA and its visa provisions.

"Canada can take advantage of the situation, importing solid engineers" said Mistry.

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the new CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On. You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca

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